Authors Note: Though I haven’t raced a triathlon in seven years, the vast majority of my athletic pursuits were in multisport for the better part of 13 years. From 1996-2009 I watched the landscape change as Ironman races began to expand into North America, and wrote the following piece when I started to sense that things might be moving in a direction that, while profitable, was likely going to come at the expense of flavor, character, and depth.
In the last three months I’ve heard about the demise of Beach2Battleship, Mooseman, Vineman, and now Timberman. Races that went against the tide and held their own, but could only do so for so long. It’s the triathlon version of Walmart vs the local store being played out before our eyes.
When I wrote this piece in 2001, Graham Fraser (then President of Ironman North America), wrote back to me within a day – he was a true standup guy. We exchanged quite a few emails, and even talked in-person that year at Ironman Canada. He heard what we were saying, and promised that he’d keep the character in all the races to come.
He tried. I know he did. But even Graham is long-gone from the landscape, bought out in 2009 by Providence Equity, who were purchased themselves last year by Wanda Group. It’s nothing personal, it’s just business.
Where we, and the sport, goes from here, is going to be decided by the wallet. Even Ironman Canada has moved from its home of Penticton to Whistler, B.C. Thousands of athletes followed the name, and while Challenge Penticton carries on, the race by the Sicamous and giant peach on the beach is no longer Ironman distance – it drew 512 athletes in 2016.
I bring this piece back not as a complaint or protest, just as an advisory – plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
Published on May 24, 2001.
I ride a train to work and home every day. It takes about an hour each way, and it gives me lots of time to sleep before a tough workout, reflect, eat, brood, or just stare out the window contemplating whatever mood I happen to be in at that moment. It’s a throwback to years gone by in a way, since most Americans tend to be very much unlike the rest of the world in that they now will only use Public Transportation once every other motorized item they own has broken down in some way. It’s a trip to a simpler era before words like “Generally Jammed,” “Suburban Sprawl,” and “Road Rage” became common in our lexicon.
Despite the fact that the train only runs late when I want to go home, is sometimes crowded and decidedly un-air-conditioned in the summer (whilst somehow managing to accomplish the tricky double-jeopardy of also being unheated in the winter), there was one part of my daily ride I knew I could always look forward to: George.
George was the voice of Market East Station in Philadelphia. Seated in the middle of the platform, he was a combination human schedule, map, tour guide, and PR man for the local rails. He was the first thing you heard when you pulled in, and the last thing you heard when you left. He managed to memorize all 600 incoming and outgoing trains on 8 different lines…all while being able to pick out individuals in the crowd and manage to say “Goodnight.”
“This is the R6 to Norristown. This train is a local, making all stops to Temple – Good night Margie! – then express to Ivy Ridge. Hi Bob. Goodnight Mark. Goodnight Alex. This is a peak hour train, so no discounts will be accepted. See you all tomorrow. Ride safely.”
He had been working for the railroad for almost 30 years, and you could tell he genuinely loved his work. He loved being the master of theater, and being the face that the normally faceless, soulless local rails needed.
So of course in the name of progress this past December, George was replaced by a computer.
“More efficient!” Said the railroad in its triumphant press release. “No chance of misunderstanding the new voice of Market East Station. No chance of missing a train, or missing a track, or anything. It’s a foolproof system designed to make your experience on the rails a better one.” Of course, I’d never heard George make a mistake, I’ve never misunderstood his booming tenor, and I’d never wished “Gee – I wish they’d take this guy out and bring in a HAL 9000 – that’d brighten this place up.”
So now we have a station computer that misses trains from time to time, tells people about the wrong train on the wrong track, and does so with the kind of monotone voice that makes the teacher in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” seem positively electric. George still gets to talk from time to time – when the system goes wonky during rush hour, George gets to step in and issue a ‘correction’…which he does with grace, aplomb, and 47 “Goodnights” to people before he brings the system back up.
So why am I talking about some guy named George, my commuting habits, and the pitfalls of progress? Hang in there – I haven’t gone South and forgotten that this is a triathlon column.
Last week before Ironman California, Ironman North America announced a new race: Ironman Wisconsin. This is the 5th race to be placed under their watch, following (in chronological order) Ironman Canada, Ironman USA (Lake Placid), Ironman Florida, and Ironman California. IM-WI is already filling up, and if it follows the pattern and formula that IM-NA has been working on there’s no question it will be a smashing success.
There are two words in there that bother me: ‘pattern’ and ‘formula’.
When I raced Ironman Canada for the first time in 1998, the morning swims were a very informal affair between a few of us that had met on-line. We’d meet at the S.S. Sicamous (a paddlewheeler on Okanagan Lake) at 7:00am, swim (okay, goof off, paddle, splash fight, dock sink, and maybe swim about 39 yards), then head over to the Hogs Breath Café for breakfast. It was simple, close, open to all that showed up on the beach, and one of the things from my first Ironman week that I remember fondly.
At Ironman USA last year some of the same folks I’d met at Canada tried to move that tradition to a new venue…but got beat at their own game. IM-NA had slickly brought out a DJ, Baggage Check, Wetsuit test-drive tent, and Seal Mask booth to Mirror Lake for the “Morning Swims.” They’ve also done the same things at Ironman California, Florida…and also starting at Ironman Canada last summer, just down the beach from us (about a mile) at “The Peach.” You can now go to any IM-NA race and pretty much see the same deal, albeit in a slightly different part of the continent.
Now before you think this will turn into an open rant about the evils of IM-NA and the WTC, forget it. I completely understand what Ironman North America is doing and why they’re doing it. They have a hot product in their hands in the Ironman race, and like it or not, our beloved sport is a business. IMC fills up in 2 days; IM-USA in 2 weeks; IM-Cal in a little over a month. It is simple supply-side economics; There is a demand for what they have, and IM-NA is going about trying to produce enough of a supply to keep it all in check. As someone who has willingly and without the use of psychotropic drugs (save the 28 quarts of lactic acid in my system from time to time) handed over an entry fee 5 times in the past 4 years, I cannot sit here at this keyboard and be a hypocrite in launching off against what some folks call “The Evil Empire.”, but I do think there are some things to be careful with.
With this (seemingly) sudden expansion of races, do I feel saddened when I start seeing the same thing applied to different places in a ‘cookie cutter’ approach? Sure. It takes a little piece of whatever soul that race might have developed on it’s own, and pushes it aside for what is known, comfortable, familiar, and already successful somewhere else…but proven to work. Success comes at the cost of a pinch of local flavor. It isn’t much at first, but when you see it in 3 or 4 different places, one begins to grow a bit leery.
Now before I get labeled a doomsayer (and quiet possibly banned from IM’s everywhere for life) is there a chance you could ever mistake the arid rollers after Richter Pass at IMC for the lush greenery of the Ausable Gorge at IM-USA, or get the “Biergarten” if IM-Europe confused with the “Hot Corner?” of St. Croix? Of course not. Each race, whether an IM-NA production or any of the other 21 races sanctioned by the WTC, will always have a certain degree of individuality that makes it unique, and that is something that I hope doesn’t ever change. I can only hope the powers that be are looking at their races the same way I am, and trying to keep it all in balance.
But that balancing act is now small feat. The Ironman as we know it is at a crossroads in it’s lifespan. Look at the number of first-timers at any race – it’s almost 40% in any given event, and I can’t turn away from the fact that I was one of them only 4 years ago – so it’s not like I haven’t contributed to this whole deal.
There are more and more of us doing these things than ever before, and since we’re such a shiny, happy, bouncy lot, we’re telling people about them, then encouraging them to try one…and before you know it…we’re all standing around wicked sore the morning after at 6:45am going “Where’s all these #*%@! people come from? I remember when you used to be able to wait until October to decide about next year…not the morning after!”
More demand means more races. That means more people to go to more races. That means IM-NA and the WTC need to expand to please us all, and somehow get it right the first time wherever they go to next to make sure the second year is a success, and that means…yes…you will probably see morning swims with a DJ, baggage check, and even a Friday morning underpants run down the streets of Madison at IM-Wisconsin. It works. It’s proven…even if it seems to lack a little more soul every time you see it.
Do I think all hope is lost? No, I don’t. As long as I have friends at these races – as long as I can still meet some folks at the same end of the lake I have before, swim, paddle, float, since, and splash fight with, I can live with a little bit of cookie cutter in my race.
I just hope that IM-NA sees what I see when I go to an IM: 1500 people. 1500 individuals with 1500 stories, 1500 dreams, 1500 wishes, and 1500 moms, dads, sons, and daughters watching. As long as they remember that no matter how many races there are they make one of those 1500 feel like they’re the only ones on the course, and not just one in a sea of faceless drones – that will be the difference.
At Ironman California, my hope for this was put to a horrible test when triathlete Perry Rendina, 45, of Shalersville, Ohio, was killed on his bike during the race. Graham Fraser, president of IM-NA, has stepped up and retired Perry’s number. He called for a moment of silence. He told all of the 2,000 athletes and friends at the awards banquet that he would respect the memory of Perry, and would help anyone with offers of condolences towards the family.
From such a dark and horrible moment, to know that Perry won’t be forgotten is of some comfort, and from what friends of mine that were present have told me, it seems heartfelt and true enough. I think they’re listening to us. I think they know how we feel. I’m willing to trust…for now.
As it stands if you’ve sent in your entry fees like me, we’re all riding that train we call the Ironman to bigger (and better?) heights. Where it goes and how it gets there may be up to someone else, but I’m willing to keep riding it if you are…so lets see how it goes.
Back at Market East, George sits at his new terminal, and waits for HAL to hiccup. The trains don’t know that George doesn’t announce them anymore, they just keep running on without him. At the end of the day he heads home, his theater suddenly silent, despite the constant droning from above. Tomorrow he’ll be back…watching the trains go without him, again.
Lets make sure that this train doesn’t leave without us.